...So, nobody? Not even NemZy-poo? Just my luck that the limited interest on EGF would evaporate just as the story is getting somewhere. Oh cruel, bitter irony.
still reading this, I will now post the final section of the chapter. Sadly, due to the post character limit this must be done in two pieces...
Akira leans back and regards the restaurant's festive, hand-crafted sign. Zum Anknabbern. A playfully self-deprecating name, meaning “good enough to eat”. That might not fly back in Germany, but clearly the restaurant's owner is having fun here in Kyoto, where the joke will go over most people's heads.
The entranceway is refreshingly tall, such that Akira can, for a change, pass through without thinking about it. Very slight mismatches in the paint suggest that the top was vaulted up after the fact. Passes on through, it's immediately clear that this place has a much more cheerful atmosphere than the Guren no Fukuryū. As far as Akira can tell, all of the patrons — mostly European or American tourists — seem to be enjoying themselves. The place seems authentic in every respect, perfectly replicating the atmosphere of a Bavarian restaurant-pub: from the imported hosts and servers, to the architecture and décor, to the music and lighting. Definitely takes Akira back. With any luck, the food will match the rest.
As different as the environs and his mental state are from last time, though, the déjà vu is strong.
A young blonde woman, sporting the stereotypical puffy white sleeves, low-cut blouse, and apron, breaks away from the front pub area and greets him. “Welcome to Zum Anknabbern, sir. How may I help you?” The Japanese is mildly stilted, but effective enough.
“I'm here for a dinner meeting,” Akira says. “My host might have already arrived.” When the hostess provides an expectant look, he elaborates, “Lukas von Frisch?”
“Ah, you must be Dr. Katsuragi,” she says. Akira simply nods. “Herr Frisch is expecting you. Right this way.”
Echoing his previous dinner meeting, Akira is escorted all the way to the back, where the nicest tables are invariably located. The colorful Teutonic atmosphere continues all the way, though distance from the bar does make this area more quiet. Aside from the pervasive tobacco smell — his fault for not asking about that, he supposes — it's quite nice.
Akira spots an older gentleman seated alone at an oversized circular table, legs loosely crossed and a cigarette gripped delicately between index and middle fingers. He's so specifically distinctive there's no doubt he is Lukas von Frisch in the flesh. As Akira approaches, the striking pale blue eyes gaze in his direction, projecting their anticipation and an almost uncomfortable sense of familiarity. Immediately, Akira's muscles tense and he can feel the rush of blood pounding away at both his eardrums.
“One of the waitresses with be with you shortly,” the hostess says, her voice impossibly distant. “Please enjoy your stay.” Akira doesn't even see her leave.
Frisch brings the cigarette to his mouth and partakes of it with all the sensuality one might provide a lover. Gray mist soon emerges from his lips in a fine funnel, thoughtfully targeted away from the table. Then, promptly reversing the act of tenderness, Frisch grinds the butt into the ashtray, vigorously, leaving no embers intact.
At last, he stands, towering as high as Akira himself, maybe even with a few centimeters' advantage. Frisch immediately leaves a strong impression: a fit, handsomely weathered man no younger than sixty, with stunningly silver hair and a neatly trimmed chevron mustache. His garb is almost alarmingly casual — even Akira is more dressed up —, nothing about it suggesting his station. But there is something about him, something about his overall presence that Akira can only describe as “aristocratic”. Perhaps, given the “von”, that's to be expected. Normally, Akira would find that off-putting — but not today.
“Good evening, Dr. Katsuragi,” Frisch greets, bowing at a modest angle. Akira immediate returns with a deeper bow. “I appreciate you coming to meet with me on such short notice.”
Straightening up, Akira shakes his head. “No, not at all, Frisch-san. It's my pleasure. I'm quite interested in whatever you have to say.”
Frisch smiles. “Feeling more confident, are we?”
Akira releases a modest sigh. “It's simpler to say, perhaps, that I'm interested in being persuaded.”
Frisch raps the tips of his fingers together. “Excellent.” He extends an open palm to the opposite end of the table. “Please have a seat, Dr. Katsuragi.”
The older man retrieves his purse — an expensive-looking piece of leather craftsmanship — and begins to rummage within. “To start with, you must want some assurance that I am who I claim.” Is he referring back to Akira's hangup on the phone? Or perhaps this is a customary step in any meeting that takes place outside the office? Frisch retrieves a small leather card holder and passes it to Akira. “Please take a look, Dr. Katsuragi.”
Akira hesitantly opens it up. The thing is packed with identification cards issued by the United Nations Commission for the Sciences. Each card is bi- or trilingual: English as the default, and the others contingent on the particular UN headquarters that issued the ID. Every major world language seems to be covered, far as he can tell. A holographic UN seal is emblazoned on each, something Akira remembers seeing on Tatsuta's ID. According to these, Frisch is a German citizen and will turn 61 in February.
One card, placed perfectly in the very middle, is different from the rest, issued instead by “UN/ISTAA”. Located in Hamburg — or at least this particular branch is — so the languages are English and German. The holographic seal is a much smaller version of what Akira remembers seeing on the ISTAA booklet: a tree resembling a brain in profile. While the other IDs are valid well into 2005, this one expires at the beginning of next year. Brings to mind what Tatsuta had said about how ISTAA wasn't quite ready to go public.
“Thank you,” Akira says, returning the holder. “That quenches all remaining doubt, I think.”
“Fantastisch.” Frisch stows it back away. “So, before we get down to business… Are you hungry, Dr. Katsuragi? I haven't eaten since the morning, myself. Please.” He gestures to the menus that the hostess set down when Akira wasn't paying attention. “Help yourself. Your meal is, of course, complimentary.”
“Ah— Yes, of course. Thank you.”
He peruses the menu. So many competing options. He could easily go for at least half of them, but schweinebraten with a side of kartoffelklösse and sauerkraut couldn't possibly let him down. The spirits menu has a lot of possibilities, as well. While he's trying to decide, the waitress arrives. Frisch greets her with casual familiarity auf Deutsch — he's clearly been waited by her before — and divulges his order. Even with such a short interchange to judge from, Akira gets the distinct impression that Frisch's speech is just as contrived and over-embellished in his native tongue. Interesting. The waitress's attention soon turns to him, and, feeling more daring than usual, he opts for an apple and pear brandy.
Once that's done with, Frisch comments, “I must commend you for choosing a German dining venue. Had you not, I would've needed to visit Zum Anknabbern on my spare time.”
“You're a regular, I take it?”
“Well,” he laughs, “as regular as an only intermittent presence in your country can be. I've been traveling abroad most of my life, and my return visits to Germany are ever limited. A piece of home in a place of business is always welcome, accordingly.”
Akira nods. “I can understand that.” He looks off to the side and notices an alpenhorn mounted on the far wall, amidst other Alpine paraphernalia. “Are you from Bavaria specifically?”
“Oh, yes,” Frisch says. “My father is actually Austrian, but I was born in Augsburg on the estate of my mother's family. I've ultimately spend more time on the German side of the border than not. Beautiful city, Augsburg. And the surrounding forest and countryside, simply exquisite. Have you been there?”
“I may have passed through at some point,” Akira allows.
“So…” Frisch strokes his mustache methodically. “I'm to understand that you personally spent part of your formative years in Germany?”
Akira's left eyebrow peaks. “I wasn't aware that was common knowledge.”
The older man leans back, grinning ever so slightly. “In my line of work, you come to know many things that aren't.”
How comforting… “Yes,” Akira relents, “it's true. I--” He cuts off, immediately struck by the fact that he's on the verge of revealing unnecessary personal details. To this man, a complete stranger. Charismatic, yes, but a stranger nonetheless. What Frisch is doing couldn't be more obvious, could it? Revealing details about himself, only to segue into questions toward Akira — clearly intended to put his guest at ease and make him open up and become more susceptible to whatever form of psychological persuasion he has planned. But perhaps this isn't actually a problem. After all, why did Akira come here, if not to be persuaded?
He takes a deep breath, then another, and finally looks into Frisch's pale blue eyes. They seem to be regarding him with a deep calm that's somewhere between fascination and detachment. It's decidedly ambiguous, to an almost exhilarating extent. Whatever precisely lay within that gaze, it's also unusually warm and comforting. The owner of those eyes is not necessarily someone Akira can trust… but he would like to. More than anything. He has to dip his toes into the waters and see what happens.
At last, he proceeds. “I spent part of my childhood in Düsseldorf. It had a… lingering effect, I've been told.”
“Hmm,” Frisch intones. “Such as your unusual height, perhaps?”
“Maybe.” Akira shrugs. “Everyone else in my family is typical Japanese height, so I guess not being limited to the usual Japanese dietary staples, even for a time, could have played some role.” Thinking about it, “I suppose, while I was in Germany, I did develop atypical eating habits that lasted well into early adulthood.” Ones entirely distinct from the pathological dietary behaviors that eventually took over…
“Apologies if this question is out of line, Dr. Katsuragi,” Frisch says, “but have you, by any chance, considered partly European heritage?”
The question takes him by surprise. “No. Well, I mean…” Akira scratches the back of his head. “I'm post-war, so it's distinctly possible. But if it were the case, my family would have made certain that no one ever heard a word about it. I have no stake in the Japanese obsession with racial purity, so it really makes no difference to me.” His index finger starts to make small circles upon the cross. “But… why specifically do you ask?”
Frisch brushes a finger along the inner top edge of his right eye. “You don't have an especially distinctive epicanthic fold. In my experience, that's more common when the blood has thinned.” He picks up his glass and swills the contained beverage around. “So to speak.”
Suddenly, Akira wishes he had access to a mirror, but the nearest available thing is the chrome of the silverware, and that won't really do. He'll have to keep it in mind for his next bathroom run. Meantime, he simply shrugs. “I'm only ever mistaken for Euro stock in the interim before someone sees my face.”
“Oh, to be sure,”—Frisch ever so slightly tips back his head and lets some of the wine trickle down—“you definitely have more East Asian features than not. The distinctiveness of your upper eyelids is a very subtle detail. You would probably need to have your genes tested to be sure. If that is something that interests you, anyway.”
Akira shrugs again. “Maybe. As a novelty, it would be interesting. I don't have the money to throw away on something like that, though.”
“Understandable.” He sets the glass back down. “So, putting that aside, how is your German? You would have needed to learn it at one point, yes?”
“Well…” Akira quickly sifts through the most obvious conversational tidbits, deciding how much depth he should provide. He doesn't get to discuss this part of his life often. All the way, it's decided. “As you might have guessed, my family lived in the Japanese quarter of the city. Immermanstraße, Oststraße…”
Frisch nods. “I've been there. Quite an interesting blend of influences in Düsseldorf. A very densely textured place.”
Akira, harboring no disagreement, goes on. “My parents tried to keep me as sequestered from foreign influence as possible. Sent me to a Japanese international school, the whole deal. For all the good it did.” He winks. “I was a defiant child. Prospect of punishment stopped phasing me at an early age and I was too 'crafty' to truly keep under wraps. So I spent as much time out and about as I could. Ingratiated myself with the local children.” At last getting to the point, he says, “I became fluent quite quickly.”
“And have you been able to hold onto any of that, Dr. Katsuragi?”
The thin man signs. “Not as well as I'd like. My working knowledge of common vernacular is fairly rusty. It's mostly technical jargon and the purely business end of social niceties that get any exercise.”
Frisch cups his chin in a palm. “Due to your international participation in the physics community, I assume?”
“If you're interested in getting a little extra practice, Dr. Katsuragi,” Frisch says, “you're welcome to do so here. I'd be quite interested in hearing your command of Deutsch.”
“I, uh…” Akira glances off. “I never feel completely comfortable speaking it in Japan. Bit of a personal hangup, I suppose.”
Frisch provides a solemn nod. “I understand that. If you don't mind my saying so, your own people are nothing if not xenophobic.”
Quite a risky thing to say to a Japanese. Did Frisch somehow know about Akira's predilections already? Or was he able to accurately guess it from what's already been said? The comment about racial purity couldn't have made that too difficult… Akira rolls with it. “Oh, by all means. I'm in full agreement. Any ill opinion you might have of my country, it's almost a certainty that I'll share it.”
“Fascinating. Your country fosters an above-average sense of nationalism, does it not? Would you consider yourself an exception?”
“Absolutely.” Akira can feel himself rapidly firing on all cylinders. He's almost never able to talk about this, least of all with such unforgiving openness. It won't matter what he says to Frisch, and it's wonderful. “I'm one of the least Japanese Japanese people you'll ever meet.”
“And would you say this is a result of your time abroad?” Frisch cocks his head, accentuating the sense of inquisitiveness. “Or is it something else?”
Akira considers this. “A combination of things, I'd guess. It's hard to say. Someone in the position of observing my personal development through cold, impartial lenses might be able to, but I'm too close to the matter.”
Frisch's neck reverts. “I see.”
At that point, food and drink arrive, bringing the conversation to a temporary respite. Everything looks and smells absolutely divine. Akira didn't realize just how hungry he was. Breaking out fork and meat knife, he sets into his dish with vigor. Setting a piece of flesh upon his tongue and working it with his teeth, he's immediately taken by how tender, juicy, and flavorful it is. Impeccably cooked, and quite possibly of a higher caliber than what he last remembers having at an actual restaurant in Germany. He takes a sip from his drink and comments, “This is excellent.”
Frisch — in the midst of slow, thoughtful mastication — provides a nod and hum of emphatic agreement. He drinks a colorless liqueur from a tall, frosty glass, then returns to his own meal. On the plate is piled what appear to be some manner of bratwurst. Each one is about fifteen cm long, neither too thick nor too thin, and uniformly cooked to a dark fleshy color. Having finished one, Frisch plunges his fork into the next. Rather than proceed by cutting off a reasonable section, he picks the entire thing up and places one end in his mouth. His eyes close in savor and…
The anxiety sets in fast and fierce, tiny muscle spasms breaking out across Akira's body. This is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, least of all because of the pulsating twitch in his left eyelid. Yet he can't bring himself to look away from the lewd display. The lascivious embrace of his lips. The playful little nibbles. The satisfied murmurs. Frisch's dining seems intended to provoke, as if, somehow, he knows. About the toy, about Taro, about twenty pitiful years of repression. But there's no possible way Frisch can know. It has to all be in Akira's head, the result of his senses playing a cruel trick on him. Either that, or this is just how Frisch eats his bratwurst and it's all a marvelous, vicious coincidence. He can't decide.
Though the table conceals his unwitting vasocongestion, he still feels absolutely exposed. An impotent and incapable passenger within his own body. A dark, clandestine impulse beckons him to take some kind of action, the kind requiring nothing more than the most subtle of looks, but there is nothing to do but ignore it. He doesn't trust himself enough to even chance the possibility that Frisch is imparting a message and waiting on a reply. He has to get his mind away from this. Back to business.
Akira swallows down the excessive saliva that had pooled in his mouth and forces himself to speak. “So, I—” He throws back some of the brandy, hoping it will soothe the nerves. “I've noticed that you have impressive credentials, Frisch-san.”
Frisch looks up from his plate, and his eyes seem to twinkle with quiet mischief. He brings his napkin to his lips, followed by a rinse of the palette. “Indeed.”
Not the response Akira was expecting. He provides a stronger prompt. “If I might ask, what exactly do you do for the United Nations?”
“A valid question, Dr. Katsuragi.” Frisch pushes his plate aside, setting down thoughtfully intertwined hands. “Overall, it is my duty to see ISTAA off the ground in a timely manner and make sure its development adheres to the vision established by my superiors.” His sturdy, calloused fingers ripple up and down against his knuckles hypnotically. “This requires having a strong international presence and regularly monitoring what all of the important players beneath me are doing.”
“Interesting,” Akira says, for lack of anything better.
Without missing a beat, the older man goes on, as if reciting a preexisting tract which must always be divulged in full. “Whenever possible, I like to simply set things in motion, then occasionally check in and make sure everything is functioning as planned. Anything that isn't is swiftly dealt with. Bureaucracies are a major problem in most organizations, but due to the UN's need for expediency I am largely liberated of such shackles. My operations are almost entirely autonomous, only occasionally requiring clearance from the higher-ups.” The sense of mechanization abruptly dissipates as he finishes, pointedly looking at Akira, “If need be, I can take lower-tier matters into my own hands.”
“Which is…” Akira gulps in spite of himself. “That's what you're doing here with me. Isn't it?”
Frisch leans back, wrapping his hands behind his head, the hint of a smirk on his lips. “Indeed?”
Is he testing me? Akira gives the man what he, apparently, wants. “If Tatsuta wasn't working out, there's no particular reason one of her peers couldn't have taken up my case. But, instead,”—he provides his own pointed look—“you're the one doing it. Arguably the most important individual in your division of the UN, spending precious hours on one lowly recruit. It's curious, no? There must be countless matters of greater significance requiring your attention.”
Frisch tenderly sips from his cup. “And why do you say that?”
Akira does the same. “It seems an inescapable conclusion of your job description.”
A sly smile. Frisch dabs the alcohol from his mustache. “No doubt you must be wondering, Dr. Katsuragi, why you warrant such an exaggerated level of special attention.”
“The thought had occurred to me, yes.”
“Tell me, Dr. Katsuragi.” Frisch steeples his fingers, suggesting another incoming tract. “Why did you spend ten years of your life pursuing the S² theory? Surely you knew that you would face harrowing opposition.”
Akira's immediate impression is that this is a non sequitur, but he tries to play along. Kneading at the back of his cranium, he says, eyes averted, “There's no one particular reason.”
“I would be honored to hear the story behind it,” the other man says, a sense of gentle honesty percolating into his voice. “Even just part of the tale would suffice.”
It's hard to isolate it from his mind: a succinct “story” behind the S² theory. Akira is tempted to just dismiss it out of hand as the product of madness. Certainly, it is that, at least in part. But that really isn't adequate grounds for summary dismissal, either. However the idea was first conceived, almost all of the actual back-breaking work was done during periods of perfect lucidity. Akira can be certain about this because, whenever possible, he had Haru look over his work for obvious flaws. Haru, being a fellow protégé of Dr. Amagiri — upon whose theoretical achievements Akira's own are ultimately built —, was in a better position than most anyone to discover potential problems. And find some he did, but these were mostly simple mathematical slip-ups and other such oversights, nothing especially devastating. Haru's opposition to Akira's work was never as a physicist, but as a friend, his objections mostly on the grounds that research of such an obsessive nature actively took away from the things that Akira also needed to be doing. In any event, Haru's quiet endorsement seems to be vindicated by the ISTAA report. Even Akira's monumental difficulty getting his monograph published is on his side, in a way: he can't think of a single rejection letter that actually justified the decision on scientific grounds.
His research of the past decade… it's not mere nonsense or madness. It's a genuine window of understanding opened up in the dark, intangible fabric of the cosmos. Beyond it lay answers to some of the greatest secrets of the universe. Humanity need only to enter that door without fear and trepidation and see where it leads, following the map painstakingly rendered within Akira's head. Unlike anyone else, he knows precisely what to do next. He knows how to reach the final destination.
In his heart of hearts, he knows this all to be true. He must simply let himself feel it again. Embrace the eternal flame and let its power flow through him.
“The tale...” Akira's eyes dart down impishly and his lips peel back just a little. “It really begins with the work of my sensei, Dr. Shinkichi Amagiri. He was a rebel himself, albeit one vindicated within his lifetime.” Akira looks back at Frisch. “Are you familiar?”
“Dr. Amagiri is the godfather of Dirac Sea physics, if I'm not mistaken.”
“You are not. Sensei always had a fascination with physics' discards pile. All the things deemed silly and fruitless, and left to rot in aging texts. Not infrequently, they inspired him. He'd uncover a thread that, if tugged on enough, would unravel all the useless nonsense, revealing an idea with actual promise. That's how the revival of the Dirac Sea began. By the time sensei took me and Dr. Yakumo under his wing, he had published a solid line-up of papers on the subject. Haru and I were both trained to continue that work.”
Frisch nods. “The S² theory definitely owes much of its foundation to Amagiri's work and your own initial explorations of same. But it's also radically divergent. Dirac Sea physics form only part of its DNA. A lot of your ideas, frankly, have never been seen before. At least, not in such a cohesive and empirical state. How did that transition come about? From dutifully following your sensei's footsteps to spearheading your own explosive suite of concepts?”
Akira thoughtfully strokes the side of his face. “A lot of it is a blur now. But, I guess, I owe a lot of it to my…” His throat bobs. “...my wife.”
“Indeed?” Frisch says, looking surprised.
“She… uh…” Suddenly the words are coming less easily. But he can get through this. Just make it quick and simple. “She never found the utility of pure theoretical physics especially convincing. I suppose, to her mind, exploring the deepest mysteries of the universe should be an entirely spiritual pursuit, not how one makes their living. She would always try to be gentle and indirect, but I knew what she was really saying: 'You have an incredible gift, and you're wasting it on things that don't actually matter.'”
“And what would actually matter?” A coy inquiry.
“Sayaka… er, my wife…” Akira starts thumbing his pendant. “She deeply believes in helping other people. Personal talents should not be wasted on trivial pursuits; they should be used for the good of the many. I guess something inside me saw the logic of that. A seed was planted, you could say.” He sighs deeply. “I think it all started to really come together when our puppy was… uh…” He rubs the edges of his eyes. “A, uh, car got her…”
Frisch allows a sympathetic frown. “I'm sorry to hear it. Dogs truly make everything better.” He imbibes what little remains in his glass, and refills it halfway from the bottle. “If it's too much, Dr. Katsuragi, there's no need to continue on my account.”
“No…” Akira shakes his head. “No, it's just that I don't think about it often, so it… you know… it always hurts when I do. I can go on.”
“By all means.”
Akira takes a moment to collect himself, then proceeds. “Anyway, as I was saying… The car. I never owned one. I never needed to. I always just ignored them. But after that, I couldn't. They cause so many needless deaths. But as I thought about it more and more, I realized that automobiles, they were just a distraction. There was a much greater issue underlying it all. Something that has been causing needless suffering, conflict, and destruction for as long as humanity has existed, and will only get worse the longer we're on this Earth.” He plunges a fork into one of the remaining morsels on his plate and holds it up. “Energy. The need for energy.” Then down the hatch it goes.
“Indeed,” Frisch says. “I've seen that your monograph dedicates a not insignificant section to the issue. And I believe you've spoken about it at all three of your big lectures this year.”
Akira finishes chewing, then washes it down. “I, uh… Well, once I got invested, it was hard not to feel passionate. Like maybe I could, eventually, make a difference in the world.”
“And there's absolutely no reason you can't.”
Here they are. They've finally reached the critical point. Whatever happens now will determine everything to follow.
Frisch goes on. “Clearly, Dr. Katsuragi, you believe in your work. You feel its inherent value on a profound level.”
“I… Yes, I suppose I do.”
“And yet something is obstructing your path forward. At this point, the most obvious problem has been removed. With ISTAA, money is no longer an issue. You know that we will fund your research to its logical conclusion.”
Akira gulps heavily and his eyes waver. “I— Yes, I do understand that.”
Frisch eases back into his chair and steeples his fingers over his lap. “So, Dr. Katsuragi, if you do not mind my asking… What, precisely, is preventing you from taking our offer?”
His fingers tighten around his great-aunt's cross. Akira takes a deep breath and expels, “I'm afraid it's a private matter.”
“Hmm,” the German muses, rapping the tips of his index fingers together. “Domestic issues? Those can be a problem, of course. But we are more than willing to work with you and your family. You need only to allow us.”
“I never said—” Akira starts, then realizes there's no point. Frisch clearly has an ability to read people far, far eclipsing Akira's ability to hide matters of the heart. “Things are very complicated right now. I can't… I shouldn't be reckless.” Immediately, Akira wonders what in the world he's thinking or doing. He went to such great lengths to convince himself that, yes, this meet-up was a good idea and all he required was a tiny push from Frisch to take the leap. And now he's accelerating in full reverse? Just how fickle is he?
Frisch fidgets briefly about his breast pocket, then lets his index finger caress his mouth contemplatively. “A troubled marriage is a painful thing. Nor a matter easily resolved. It can take months… years… for the final verdict to be reached.”
Akira stares into his lap, fiercely biting his lower lip.
“You're seeking answers, Dr. Katsuragi, but you're the only one genuinely capable of providing them. You must decide what is truly important to you.”
Akira tries to speak, but his voice emerges a whisper. “I want to. More than anything.” He looks back up. “That's why I came here. You said—” He coughs into his sleeve, then resumes with better volume. “You said you wanted to persuade me. Well, then… persuade me!”
Frisch smirks. “You dislike Tatsuta's tactics, but, I'm afraid, she learned much of what she knows from me. Are you certain you wish to hear it, though?”
“At this point? I'm not sure it really matters.” The long, scrawny fingers begin to anxiously crawl through shaggy purple bangs. “Whatever you think I need to hear, Frisch-san… please say it.”
“Consider your options. Look at them with your scientist's eyes. You could pursue what is quite possibly a doomed relationship to its cold, bitter end, in accordance with the misguided hope that your true calling in life is little more than domestic mediocrity. Families are everything, Dr. Katsuragi… to those who have naught to give the world but their shuffled genes.”
Akira's speechless. He didn't expect something so immediately callous. He wants to disagree with it, violently. But he can't. The words don't reach his tongue.
“For a man of such overwhelming intelligence and trailblazing vision, family is well and good. But it's clear that your potential memetic legacy is so much more significant.”
Frisch punctuates his cruelty by pulling a cigarette from his breast pocket and lighting it up, with such speed and fluidity that Akira has not even the slightest chance to protest. Attempting to do so after the fact would just make Akira feel even more impotent. He takes the insult without complaint, to Frisch's apparent amusement.
The older man chortles. “So, is that what you had in mind?”
Akira, shoulders stiff, buries his hands in his lap. “Maybe. I don't know anymore.”
“To put it simply, Dr. Katsuragi…” The German allows himself a long, deep inhalation, and visibly savors every milligram of nicotine that enters his bloodstream. “If you let this offer pass you by, that's an opportunity to benefit all humanity that may well be gone forever.” Smoke ominously billows from his mouth as he speaks. “Is that a blemish you really want on your life?”
“Why?” Akira says. “Why only two months?”
Frisch continues to smoke, unperturbed. “It's really not up to me, Dr. Katsuragi. The order to seek out certain kinds of talent within a certain amount of time was sent down. I obey.”
“That doesn't answer the question…” Akira murmurs sullenly.
“You're correct. There are some questions for which I can't provide a direct answer, I'm afraid. Unlike many others, I'm fully willing to admit that.”
Akira's eyes start to water, though possibly more because of the smoke than due to the usual culprit. “So if, after another month, you can't get me… what will ISTAA do?”
A narrow gray cloud dissipates skyward. “Get by with a pale imitation, I suppose. It's not what I would prefer, I assure you. Losing you would be catastrophic. The key to limitless energy is right inside your head.” Frisch taps his temple for emphasis. “Even with your paper out there, do you think anyone else truly comprehends your ideas? Enough to actually take them to the next stage? I'd expect even the best possible substitute to require another decade just to completely wrap their head around the most basic principles in your paper. You're that far ahead of everyone else.”
“So, that assessment report…? Was it just for show?”
“Not at all,” Frisch says. “But, obviously, there's a world of difference between checking someone's research for fundamental competency and such, and actually being able to continue that research yourself.”
“I suppose.” Akira starts fidgeting again. “I… Frisch-san, I want to see the S² reactor through. I really do. But this is a terrible time. I want to give you an answer now, but there's no way I can. Not in good conscience.”
Frisch strokes his mustache. “You honestly believe that whatever is happening in your life will be resolved in a month?”
Akira laughs bitterly. “I really don't know what to believe.”
The older man sips from his drink. “Perhaps what you need, Dr. Katsuragi, is a vacation.”
A strange, almost contemptuous sound escapes Akira's lips. “A vacation?” He compulsively reaches for his own drink.
Frisch is, as always, unaffected. “This weekend I'm needed down in West Bank for a bit of minutiae. Qumran, specifically; perhaps you've heard of it.”
“Maybe.” Akira shrugs. “I'm not sure.”
He goes on. “We have a temporary facility down there, called ARQA Base.” He produces a handful of Polaroids. “The whole thing will be ripped down first quarter next year, so it doesn't look like much.”
Akira takes a look. It's basically a long, three-story prefabricated building in the middle of the desert. There's no sign of actual roads, just worn-out depressions in the sand. There's a couple of signs in the pictures, mostly in Hebrew but with some illegible English underneath. The acronym “ARQA” seems to be slapped onto everything. “What does 'ARQA' mean?”
“Archeological Research of Qumran Alliance. Awkward, as many acronyms are.”
“Archeology?” He shakes his head. “That doesn't have anything to do with me.”
Frisch takes the photos back. “ARQA is a small UN offshoot with the purpose of making excavations and research in that area less… sticky, shall we say.”
“I see,” Akira says, still waiting for the relevant part. “What's your involvement here?”
“The base is a joint operation between ARQA and my organization. ARQA gets top billing, of course, but most of the talent, technology, and so forth — that is provided by the commission. What we have here, Dr. Katsuragi, is proof of concept of ISTAA. This is, in reality, an ISTAA project. One of the first.”
“And… that's why you want me to see it?”
“Indeed. I want you to see, with your own eyes, what becomes possible with us. You will be able to witness, for yourself, just how state of the art we are — how no expense is spared giving our researchers the tools they require. You'll be able to meet successful enlistees. Every last one will be pleased to answer any questions you might have. Provided you don't exceed certain boundaries, of course.”
“Of course…” Akira repeats, not entirely sure what Frisch means but not sure it really matters, either. “But, Frisch-san, archeology? You still haven't told me—”
“Ah! Quite right. You needn't worry about that. ARQA Base has a little bit of everything. I'm fairly certain we even have some theoretical physicists.”
The mind boggles. What in the world could they be doing with the cooperation of an archaeological alliance that would require theoretical physicists? “I'd be lying if I said I wasn't deeply curious.” He takes a drink. “About just what is going on there and why you think I would benefit from seeing it.”
“That's the idea, Dr. Katsuragi. If I didn't appeal to your sense of curiosity, what would be the point?”
“I suppose so.”
“That brings us to the matter of your availability. It has to be this weekend. Depart Friday afternoon, arrive back before dawn on Monday.”
The previous time Frisch mentioned “weekend” it didn't quite register, but now… Akira shakes his head vigorously. “No… There's no way I can go. I have important obligations.” Everyone is coming over to help knock the wall down on Sunday, and he's promised to help Misato with her project. Whatever his feelings about Sayaka, he can't let himself miss those.
“Oh?” Frisch taps his index fingers together. “How important?”
Akira tries to stand his ground. “Incredibly. That's all I can say.”
Frisch doesn't seem affected by this at all. He casually works on a morsel, and, afterward, just as casually sips from his glass. “I'm willing to compensate you for your time and trouble, Dr. Katsuragi.” He gives Akira a pointed look. “You have a teenage daughter, I understand? How is her college fund coming along?”
Both of Akira's eyebrows shoot up. “Preteen, anyway. But what does that have to do with any—”
Frisch slowly twirls the glass between his fingers. “I trust it's still in a hard place, what with your professor's salary. But it doesn't have to be that way.” He produces his wallet and starts pulling 10,000 yen notes from within, laying them down on the table one after another.
Akira watches helplessly. What on earth is this man doing?
After Frisch sets down the twelfth note, he says, quite calmly, “I will pay you this much, times four. And all you have to do is accompany me and tour the facility. Nothing else.”
Is Frisch insane? He wants to give Akira ¥480,000 for doing what amounts to nothing? “You're trying to… bribe me?” He cradles his forehead wearily. “Is this even legal?”
Frisch shuffles the notes back into a neat pile. “You may be surprised.”
“Enlighten me,” Akira says.
“The Frisch estate is one of the United Nations' many patrons, Dr. Katsuragi. As the current head of that estate, I may, of course, donate funds anywhere I please.” A sly grin. “Toward a bright young woman's scholastic future, for instance. It would not be the first time, and it would hardly be the last.” He takes a drag off his cigarette. “Frankly, Dr. Katsuragi, such a paltry sum would be more than worth it, if it helped enable your possible investment in our organization.”
Akira says nothing.
“¥480,000 should put a fair dent in your girl's tuition. Cover at least the first year, I imagine. Quite charitable, don't you think? Wouldn't your family agree that one mere weekend is worth that much?”
“Maybe,” he allows. “It's… it's really hard to say.” Akira runs his fingers under his hair, cupping his scalp. “And all I have to do is visit this place? That's really all?”
“Correct.” Frisch at last snuffs his cigarette. “You'll have to sign nondisclosure forms, of course, but otherwise I require nothing more than what I stated previously. That is, for you to accompany me on a tour of the facility. It will take most of Saturday and possibly some of Sunday. There is zero obligation to enlist with ISTAA, and your daughter will receive her scholarship via mail within the week.”
“Wait. Possibly Sunday?” Akira asks. “If what you require of me only takes a day, and I could be back here on Sunday, that would make a world of difference.”
Frisch shakes his head. “Alas, I cannot be certain of the timing. Were that possible, I would not unduly waste your time. There are many factors that are out of my control.”
“I… I see…”
“If it so happens that we're done sooner than expected — well, Kalya and the Dead Sea are certainly worth seeing while you're down there. I can provide a guide to you free of charge.”
“That's very generous, but…” Wait. Dead Sea? West Bank? Israel-Palestine? A long-delayed alarm triggers. “It occurs to me, isn't that part of the world a bit… volatile?”
Frisch offers a reassured smile. “You're not mistaken, Dr. Katsuragi. There are inevitable complications that arise from working there. At the same time, there are also many preventative and precautionary measures that can be taken. ARQA Base is a highly secured location and has yet to suffer incident. I have also been to the area many times, and, as you see, I am still here.”
“So… you would guarantee my safety?”
“Absolutely. All protective measures enjoyed by me will also be conferred to you.”
Akira gazes deeply into his plate. Being treated like a VIP in a potential danger zone, there's an innate thrill and adventure to the notion. Normally, Akira finds little appeal in personal endangerment, but today is not a normal day. “If I do this… What guarantee do I have that this isn't a trick? That you'll keep your word? … All of it?”
Frisch's mouth dips up on one side. “A simple matter. My office will create a contract, and we'll both stamp it before the flight.”
Akira grits his teeth. He wishes an answer would just come from without and take this terrible decision out of his hands. But that won't happen. It's up to him. All up to him. His thumb rubs the cross so fiercely that the knuckle has gone white. A vacation. Yes. Get away from Sayaka for a couple of days, see a part of the world he's never visited, collect his thoughts on everything. Not burden Misato with a parent-child project she never wanted to do anyway… score her a sizable scholarship instead. There's the matter of the wall, of course… Demolishing it at long last was his idea, his pet project, and it's only happening because he advocated it so passionately. People are coming together who haven't been in the same place for years, all to help him and his family. It would be better if he were there to see it through, and part of him has certainly looked forward to the event. But his presence isn't required. They can do it without him.
Akira's mouth opens and closes a couple of times before words finally escape his lips. “…… Make it so.”
Frisch seems to beam with delight. “So, then… I have your full cooperation?” After Akira fails to object, he says, “Excellent.” He produces a business card, flipping it over and scrawling a date and time on the back. “One of our vehicles will pick you up at your residence at this time and drive you to a private air strip outside Tokyo. Be reasonable about baggage, of course. A suitcase and handbag should suffice.” Further routine instructions are provided, and Akira scrawls any stand-outs in his pocket memo.
Once that's done with, Frisch pays the waitress and begins to quickly wrap things up. “I regret to say I am presently needed elsewhere, so I must depart.” He stands and extends his hand. They bowed the first time, so fair enough. “It was an absolute delight meeting with you, Dr. Katsuragi.”
Akira rises and returns the gesture. “Same. This was a very interesting eve—” He suddenly realizes that he's made his usual mistake of extending the left hand and quickly corrects.
Frisch emits an amused chuckle. “There's no need. For, you see,”—he retracts his right hand and extends the left—“I am actually sinistral myself.”
Interesting. How did he manage to not pick up on that? Preoccupied with too many other things, no doubt. Akira at last places his dominant hand within Frisch's, and a strong, steady shake follows. At first he's taken back to the similar handshake he received this past summer at DTNI. But there's a subtle difference in duration; while Frisch doesn't blatantly overstay his welcome, his hold is extended just long enough to register as odd.
Separating, Frisch says, “I shall see you on Friday then. I have great hopes for this trip, Dr. Katsuragi. There is little doubt in my mind that you will find it revelatory.”
“We will see,” Akira says. “We will see.”